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Water Resource Management, Climate Change and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean

1 de diciembre de 2015|Nota informativa

Briefing note by ECLAC Caribbean Chief, Diane Quarless (December 2015)

Over the past two decades, the issue of climate change has assumed increasing importance from the perspective of development thinkers, policy makers, investors, and civil society, as they have sought to design strategies to mitigate its anticipated impact. Stimulated by extensive global dialogue and relentless research of feasible solutions to this challenge, discussion on the need for adaptation and mitigation to address the increased frequency and intensity of natural events, and the importance of energy security and alternative energy solutions has become an essential element of the dialogue on sustainable development imperatives for the Caribbean. Significantly however, the impact of climate change on water availability and management has generally never been featured in such discourse, or given the level of importance deserved. In this issue, we give focus to water and its role in our future development, with a particular emphasis on water as a development issue in Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

The UN’s World Water Development Report 2015 puts water at the core of sustainable development, it being an essential element of services which support poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability. Water is of course pivotal to global food security, as an integral resource sustaining agriculture, and is critical to energy security and industrial development, since it is used for cooling power production and related industrial technologies. Water availability is also integral to improving social well-being and equity, and to fostering inclusive growth. Given its key role in the maintenance of environmental health, this resource is central to the growth and well-being of societies.

Although water was not identified as a specific target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), various achievements under the MDGs have resulted in improved access to drinking water for approximately 2.5 billion persons. Notwithstanding this significant milestone, global water demand is projected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050, driven by increased population and urbanization, as well as the application of more water intense food and energy security policies. The macro-economic growth of newly emerging countries through globalization is also expected to increase this demand, as changing diets and consumption patterns raise the levels of global per capita water use.

From a policy standpoint, water and sanitation comprise a number of critically interrelated components which impact overall development. These include elements such as water resources, water governance, water-related diseases, wastewater pollution and water quality, drinking water, and sanitation and hygiene.

It is all of these factors which led to a clear enunciation of water and sanitation as Goal 6 of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ultimate aim of which is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by the year 2030.

While for Caribbean SIDS progress has already been achieved with respect to some of these elements, there are still development challenges to be overcome in order to guarantee the sustainable development future of the subregion. These challenges are likely to be further exacerbated by the concomitant effects of climate change. Consider for example, climate projections for the Caribbean which suggest the likelihood of more intense rainfall over shorter time periods, resulting in periods of both excessive rainfall and drought. This phenomenon has implications for the subregion’s ability to implement both flood management infrastructure as well as drought mitigation systems in order to shore up the public water supply, and to provide water for economic sectors such as tourism and agriculture. Such challenges influenced by climate change directly impact the availability of natural water resources of Caribbean SIDS. 

As noted by the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, climate change is anticipated to have major impacts on the islands’ two main water sources - ground water and surface water.  In the case of ground water, changing rainfall intensity due to climate change could reduce ground water recharge during periods of extremely heavy rainfall, since much of this water dissipates through run-off. At the same time, drought conditions could also result in extreme water extraction from aquifers both through use and surface evaporation, ultimately affecting both water availability and ground water quality. In the case of surface water, climate change can induce high levels of evaporation from surface reservoirs, rapid run-off during heavy rainfall and filtration to ground water sources.

The Caribbean is also facing challenges related to wastewater management and growing intersectoral water competition, as it struggles to provide improved housing and other public infrastructure while sustaining economic growth. With respect to public infrastructure, improved water distribution systems will be necessary to reduce the high level of water lost through leakage. The management of wastewater as a water recycling strategy is also critical in this regard. Water use efficiency in the tourism sector will also require attention, given the implications for bothfinancial and environmental sustainability for the region’s most dynamic economic sector. It is my hope that the articles presented in the issue will provide the necessary food for thought to stimulate an awakening to the very real, urgent water challenges confronting us in the context of the broader development aspirations of the subregion.